Hedeby (Old Norse Heiðabýr, from heiðr 'heath', and býr 'yard'; Danish/Swedish Hedeby, Latin Heidiba; also Haiðaby, Haidaby) was an important settlement of Danish Vikings and Swedish Varangians, respectively.

The place is considered an early medieval town in Northern Europe and was an important trading place and main hub for long-distance trade between Scandinavia, Western Europe, the North Sea area and the Baltic States. It was founded around 770 and finally destroyed in 1066 at the latest.

Hedeby was located on the Kimbrian Peninsula at the end of the Schlei River in the Schleswig Narrows (Isthmus) between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea near the historic Ochsenweg (or Heerweg).

The place probably belonged to the administrative unit Arensharde at that time. Today the area belongs to Germany, the site is part of the municipality of Busdorf near Schleswig in the district of Schleswig-Flensburg.

Abandoned since its destruction in the 11th century, the site of Hedeby, together with the Danewerk, is the most important archaeological ground monument in Schleswig-Holstein and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2018 as the Archaeological Frontier Complex of Hedeby and Danewerk. The ramparts around the former settlement are part of the nature reserve "Hedeby-Dannewerk".

Hedeby's History

After the migration of peoples, in the course of which many Angles and Saxons emigrated to England, Danes and Jutes advanced from the north to the Schlei and the Eckernförde Bay in the first half of the 8th century.

The area seems to have been sparsely populated at this time. At the latest around 770, Hedeby was founded and very soon became the most important trading center of the Danes. In the 9th century a second settlement was established further north and another settlement at the Hedeby creek in between.

At the end of the 9th century, the northern and southern parts of the settlement were abandoned. The middle part at the Hedeby brook continued to be used and was integrated by ramparts into the Danish border fortifications of the Danewerk.

Due to the destruction of the competing Slavic trading town of Reric near Wismar by the Danish King Gudfred in 808 and the subsequent forced relocation of at least the Danish merchants to Hedeby, the town quickly developed into a trading town even before Denmark gained unity.

Since 811, the Eider River, flowing a few kilometers to the south, marked the border with the Frankish Empire, which increased the importance of Hedeby. The location of the town was very favorable, because the Schlei, a long arm of the Baltic Sea, was navigable, and at the same time the ancient north-south route, the Ox Trail, ran here.

It is also likely that trade goods were loaded here, which were brought overland only a few kilometers to the Eider and from there shipped on to the North Sea - and vice versa.

Hedeby was located in the extreme south of the area settled by Vikings. From the 9th to the 10th century, Hedeby, with its at least one thousand permanent inhabitants, was an important trading center known beyond the region.

Its own coins were also minted there. Other trading centers in Northern and Western Europe, without which Hedeby could not have attained such importance, at this time included. Västergarn (previously Paviken) and Vallhagar on Gotland, Avaldsnes, Kaupang, Spangereid and Steinkjer (Norway), Birka, Löddeköpinge and Sigtuna (Sweden), Domburg, Dorestad and Witla (Netherlands), Quentovic (France), Novgorod (Russia), Ribe and Tissø (Denmark), and on the southern Baltic coast Jomsburg (Vineta), Menzlin, Ralswiek, Truso (near Elbing) and Wiskiauten (near Cranz), both places in Prussia, and Seeburg in the Baltic. Around 890, Wulfstan of Hedeby undertook a journey to Truso on behalf of Alfred the Great.

Around 800, Swedish Vikings (Varangians) independent of Denmark dominated the region. However, they were subdued only a few years later by the Danish king Gudfred, who made Hedeby the center of his empire. Around 900, Swedish Vikings again took power in Hedeby.

In 934, the East Frankish-Saxon King Henry I defeated the Danes under King Knut I in the "Battle of Hedeby" and subsequently conquered the town. Thus, the area between the Eider and Schlei rivers initially fell to the East Frankish or Roman-German Empire until 945, when the Danish King Gorm conquered the important trading center. Gorm's son Harald initially lost Hedeby again to Henry's son Otto I in 974.

Hedeby was also a major trading center because of its location on the trade routes between the Frankish Empire and Scandinavia and between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Adam von Bremen mentions Sliaswich and Heidiba as names.

Therefore the place was sometimes confused with Schleswig. It had been a port (portus maritimus) from which ships were sent as far as Sweden and the Byzantine Empire. Especially the production and processing of pottery (tableware), glass and tools became important for the importance of Hedeby.

After a visit by Emperor Otto I, Hedeby became a bishop's seat. Already around 850, probably by Archbishop Ansgar of Hamburg, the first Christian church had been built.

The existence of this building is certainly attested in the written sources, but could not yet be proven archaeologically. However, a church bell dating from the early 10th century was recovered.

Adam von Bremen later described the site as a "settlement of the Saxons" which had been destroyed in a dispute with King Otto II, although he did not distinguish between Otto I and Otto II.

In the 10th century, Hedeby reached its heyday and, with at least 1500 inhabitants, was the most important trading center for the western Baltic region. In 983, the Danish king Harald Blauzahn (also: Harald I.

Gormson; Danish Harald Blåtand), who had recognized the sovereignty of the empire since 948, conquered Hedeby, and in the decades around 1000 the settlement again belonged to the sphere of influence of the Roman-German Emperor Otto III, who, however, did not exert any influence due to his young age and other disputes (Slavic uprising of 983). Under Emperor Conrad II.
the border was probably moved back from the Schlei to the Eider by an act of war undertaken by Sven Gabelbart (→ Mark Schleswig).

Although a nine-meter-high rampart with palisade surrounded the trading town, it was probably destroyed in 1050 in a battle between Harald Hardrada of Norway and Sweyn II. It was then only partially rebuilt and in 1066 it was plundered and burned by the West Slavs, who at that time lived in the areas east of the Kiel Fjord.

The inhabitants then moved the settlement to Schleswig - on the other bank of the Schlei - and did not rebuild Hedeby. Together with the Battle of Stamford Bridge in the same year, the destruction and abandonment of Hedeby marks the end of the Viking Age.

Hedeby (Heidiba) is mentioned in detail in the chronicle of the archbishopric of Hamburg, written in Latin by Adam von Bremen. The Saxons and Franks called a more recent settlement near Hedeby Sliaswig and Sliaswich (settlement or bay on the Schlei), from which the name of the city of Hedeby and the Duchy of Schleswig is derived.

Hedeby's Trade

Hedeby lay at the crossroads of two important trade routes: A few kilometers to the west, the Ochsenweg (Danish: Hærvejen, German: Heerweg) passed by, for centuries the crucial south-north connection from Hamburg to Viborg in Jutland.

In the west-east direction, there was a sea trade route between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea: ships could reach Hollingstedt via the Eider and Treene rivers. It was then possible to use the Rheider Au with smaller ships.

Then the ships had to be pulled overland from the Rheider Au to the Selker Noor (southern continuation of the Haddebyer Noor) to get into the Schlei. According to other theories, the Kograben just south of the Danewerk may have served as a shipping channel.

Goods from all over the then known world were traded in Hedeby: from Norway, Sweden, Ireland, the Baltic States, Constantinople, Baghdad and the Frankish Empire. Wines were imported from the Rhineland (Koblenz area) (5th-7th centuries).

From the Scandinavian area mainly raw materials were traded, from the more distant areas rather luxury goods. Archaeological findings of iron foot and hand shackles prove a trade with slaves.

The example of Hedeby, which was a goods transfer point on a greenfield site without urban infrastructure, is atypical for the emergence of a developed city.

The forced settlement of the merchants of Reric and the influx of craftsmen led to a densification of the settlement. Because the rural population sold their grain surpluses to the city and the city dwellers were therefore not dependent on self-sufficiency, differentiated activities could develop there.

Hedeby's Archeology 

From the very beginning, Hedeby offered favorable conditions for the archaeologists' work: The site had never been built over, and as a result of the wetness, the sections near the shore were still very well preserved in places, so that the excavation field still revealed many details. In 1897, the Danish archaeologist Sophus Müller came to the conclusion that the area within the semicircular wall was the settlement site of ancient Hedeby.

In 1900 this was confirmed by Johanna Mestorf. She had the first excavations carried out within the rampart, and the first finds confirmed the assumption.

From 1900 to 1915, excavations took place every year with the aim of clarifying the significance of Hedeby in Nordic history and its role in the world of the Viking campaigns. In the years from 1930 to 1939, intensive excavations were carried out under the direction of Herbert Jankuhn.

During the National Socialist period, the excavations were under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler since 1934 and were initially financed by the Forschungsgemeinschaft Deutsches Ahnenerbe.

In 1938, the latter took over Hedeby. For the National Socialists, the excavations had a high ideological significance in their search for a supposed "Germanic" identity. In Hedeby, the SS-Ahnenerbe invested more than half of its excavation budget. After the war, the work was continued under Kurt Schietzel.

In the summer of 1949, Otto von Wahl, a lawyer from Schleswig, discovered the palisades of the harbor fortifications of Hedeby, the ship rivets of wrecks of Viking ships lying in the harbor floor, and various small finds such as glass beads and a bronze bracelet during dives.

Otto von Wahl therefore urged the archaeologists to resume the underwater search. Extensive investigations of the Haddeby Noor in the harbor area off Hedeby were then carried out from 1953 under the direction of Karl Kersten and Hans Hingst from the State Museum for Pre- and Early History in Schleswig.

Since 1959, the entire southern settlement in front of the semicircle wall as well as a large part of the old settlement core in the semicircle wall have been excavated.

The investigation of the 11 ha harbor basin has also been advanced. Successful diving excavations took place in 1953. Further remains of the harbor palisade and the wreck of the Viking ship Hedeby were discovered. In 1979, it could be salvaged after the construction of a salvage structure (sheet pile box).

The salvage of the wreck, its conservation and the subsequent reconstruction of the Viking ship were recorded on 16 mm film by the Film-AG in the Schleswig-Holstein Student Union under the direction of Kurt Denzer. As a result of this cinematic documentation, the 30-minute documentary film Das Hedeby-Schiff was released in 1985.

Hedeby is the best researched early medieval harbor in Germany. With ship salvage and harbor investigations until 1980, the excavations came to a temporary end. Until then, however, only five percent of the settlement area and one percent of the harbor had been intensively investigated.

With the help of dendrochronology, it was determined that the individual buildings had only a short lifespan on the moist soil and had been built over several times. The first year-precise dendrochronological dating of finds was achieved by Dieter Eckstein as part of his dissertation in 1969.

Since 2002, a kind of city map of Hedeby has been created with the help of magnetic geophysical prospection.

In doing so, one makes use of the fact that the remains of human activity show different magnetic structures than the surrounding soil. To verify and confirm the results, excavations were carried out again in Hedeby from 2005 to 2010.

Among other things, a domed kiln built on the remains of a burned pit house was found, which may have served for the production of glass beads. As part of a three-year grant from the Volkswagen Foundation, the finds and features from the excavation are being evaluated.

In the summer of 2017, a burial ground was re-examined in which grave goods had already been found in 1939 a few days before the outbreak of the war.

The uncovering of several graves revealed bone finds as well as quite a few pieces of jewelry made of gold and precious stones. The most important finds, including the rune, were found in the grave.

The most important finds, including the rune stones of Hedeby, have been on display in the Hedeby Viking Museum since 1985.

The Danewerkmuseum is located directly at the Danewerk. A Viking house from Hedeby has been reconstructed at the Moesgård Museum in Denmark.